Man looking up in thought
Cognition and perception, Health and wellbeing

Contemplation – the power to transform self and society

Simon Mitchell and William Van Gordon.

11 January 2023

We are all, individually and collectively, striving to construct meaningful lives amid a meaning crisis. Against a backdrop of the existential problems of our time – from the mental health crisis to the climate emergency – does the growing uptake of contemplation point toward a shift in the Western value system, the latest reweaving of our social fabric?

Contemplation stems from the Greek word theoria, which entails a type of seeing and ‘knowing beyond words’ (Case et al., 2012, p.346). It involves marking out a space for observation, or holding an idea before the mind. These definitions point to a deliberate act of receptive inner observation and investigation, whether in respect of a specific object of contemplation or a more profound connection with the ground of our being (Ducasse et al., 2019). Contemplation is about self-realisation (Walker, 2010), with the ancient Greek aphorism ‘know thyself’ reflecting an injunction to seek knowledge of ultimate reality and its irreducible meaning.

We’ve noticed a general turn in this direction, inward, in recent years. Approximately 1 in 4 UK adults report having used meditation to improve their mental wellbeing in the last five years (BUPA, 2019), and 15 per cent of British adults have learnt to practice mindfulness (Simonsson et al., 2020). In generation Zers, these numbers represent a doubling from the previous generation (Georgiou & Chheda, 2020). This growth in popularity is repeated in some mind-body forms of contemplation, such as yoga (Cartwright et al., 2020) and tai chi (Lange, 2020). Furthermore, although traditionally associated with religion and spirituality, forms of contemplation can increasingly be identified in modern secular domains such as education (e.g. contemplative pedagogy), the workplace (e.g. reflective career practice), general-living contexts (e.g. life-reflection), sports, and the arts (Van Gordon et al., 2021).

Amongst such activities, what is specific to contemplation? Here are six criteria to distinguish it from routine forms of, for example, thinking, thought rumination, and problem solving (Van Gordon et al., 2021).

Volition: The contemplative act is deliberate

Objectification: A (single or) range of discrete phenomena, experiences, concepts, or situations are selected as objects to be contemplated

Attention: Attention is directed toward the object of contemplation in a focused manner

Awareness: A level of conscious awareness of engagement in contemplation is retained throughout the period of contemplation

Process: Contemplation ordinarily involves a process of investigation, exploration, observation, and / or reflection directed toward the object of contemplation

Objective: There is a purpose for engaging in contemplation that is normally to elicit insight, meaning, growth (e.g. personal, psychological, or spiritual), and/or well-being

Practices and processes with the potential to meet such criteria include meditation, mindfulness, mind-body practices and contemplative prayer, but also aspects of reflection, introspection, metacognition (i.e. thinking about thinking), self-regulation, self-awareness, and self-consciousness. For example, reflection involves ‘purposeful critical analysis of knowledge and experience, in order to achieve deeper meaning and understanding’ (Mann et al., 2009, p.597), which can help cultivate understanding of complex situations, wisdom and learning effectiveness. Similarly, studies have shown that introspection, which involves the ability to examine and report our conscious feelings and thoughts, can help us understand aspects of both our own and others’ inner experience (Bitbol & Petitmengin, 2016).

While knowledge of the components of contemplation is important, effective contemplation typically requires transcending, or at least stepping back from, routine forms of cognitive appraisal. This can be difficult to implement in practice, which is why contemplative ‘props’ are often employed, such as guided vocal, written or pictorial instruction, breath awareness, visualisation, mantra recital, and body posture techniques (see Box 1 for an example of a guided mindfulness meditation).

Box 1. Example of a guided mindfulness meditation (Van Gordon & Shonin, 2021) 

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A Guided Meditation Using Mindful Breathing

  1. Breathing in, I am fully aware that I breathe in; breathing out, I am fully aware that I breathe out.
  2. Breathing in, I am aware whether my breath is deep or shallow, short or long; breathing out, I allow my breath to follow its natural course.
  3. Breathing in, I enjoy breathing in; breathing out, I enjoy breathing out and I smile gently to myself.
  4. Breathing in, I am fully aware of each individual moment of my breath; breathing out, I taste and experience the texture of breath.
  5. Breathing in, I am aware of whether my breath is hot or cold; breathing out, I am aware of my lungs as they rise and fall.
  6. Breathing in, I inhale the wind and the oceans; breathing out, I feel rooted in the earth.
  7. Breathing in, as I breathe in, the universe breathes in; breathing out, as I breathe out, the universe breathes out.
  8. Breathing in, I am aware of the space and time that exists between my in-breath and out-breath, and between my out-breath and in-breath; breathing out, I relax into this space and time.
  9. Breathing in, there is nowhere else I need to be; breathing out, I am already home.
  10. Breathing in, I enjoy being alive; breathing out, I enjoy simply being.

 

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Wellbeing and workplace

Contemplative practices have been researched since the proto-universities of Ancient Greece, and through modern Psychology forefathers such as William James and Wilhelm Wundt. But empirical research into the health benefits of contemplation really began in earnest in the 1960s and 1970s (Van Gordon et al., 2021). Anchored in an objectivist science and a notion of self as an independent and autonomous entity, such research has principally been interested in how these practices can be instrumentalised to improve the health and performance of the personal self (King & Badham, 2020). Referred to as a ‘self-power’ approach to contemplation (Safran, 2016), there has been relatively little emphasis on prosocial effects. For example, mindfulness has principally been researched in relation to its capacity to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress, and improve emotion regulation, rather than as a mechanism to activate altruistic behaviours, even though it has been found to do so (Iwamoto et al., 2020).

Whilst this phase in the history of contemplation research in the West is foundational to contemplative psychology, it risks accentuating ego attachment and narcissistic behaviour (Shonin et al., 2014). That is not to deny the value of this research and its application to health science, for it has undoubtedly contributed significantly to understanding and treating a multitude of psychological and somatic conditions. However, for some it represents a ‘decontextualizing [of contemplation] from its original liberative and transformative purpose’ (Purser & Loy, 2013, p. 13).

Around 2005, there were signs that contemplative psychology research was realigning with this transformative purpose with a shift from a preoccupation with self to an emphasis on connectedness with others, with research and interventions focussed, for example, on compassion and loving-kindness meditation (Hoffman et al, 2011). Such practices are concerned with fostering ethical and socioemotional awareness and are congruent with postmodernvalues.

However, within this trend away from the instrumentalization of contemplation, there is evidence of increasing adoption of contemplative practices that are more aligned with a metamodern ontology and epistemology. This includes growth in research into contemplative wisdom practices, such as emptiness, nonself, impermanence, interdependence, and nonattachment (for explanations of these terms, see Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2014), as well as a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions (SG-MBIs) that are overtly psycho-spiritual and embody many of these wisdom techniques (Van Gordon & Shonin, 2020).

A similar evolution of the idea of contemplation has occurred around the workplace. Duerr (2004) identified two broad categories relating to how contemplative practices are employed here. The first category conforms to modern values and concerns practices ostensibly used to augment organisational performance, including improving productivity, creativity, work-stress, and job satisfaction. This invariably reflects an instrumentalisation of contemplation tied to accomplishing specific organisational goals (Case et al., 2012).

However, the second category is concerned with a more transformative use of contemplative practices, particularly in relation to changing how the organisation contributes to self-empowerment and positive social change. Organisations employing contemplation in this manner are more aware of their interconnectedness within an ecosystem. As this evolves further, there is some evidence that contemplative principles are used to help employees reclaim their inner self and adopt a more evolutionary purpose that is driven by what the world is asking of them (Laloux, 2014, 2015). An example of an organisation attempting to adopt such metamodern values and practices appears to be Buurtzorg, aDutch nursing care provider of over 9,000 employees, with an evolutionary purpose of placing humanity above bureaucracy (de Blok & Pool, 2010).

Professional development and education

Schon (1983) proposed that to develop the wisdom and artistry required for professional development, individuals need to engage in contemplative reflective practices. However, while intended to derive meaning and insight from experience, this form of reflection has been criticised for being instrumentalist and positivist whereby contemplative insight is transformed into practical strategies for personal growth and organisational gain (Anderson, 2006). At the postmodern stage, reflective practice becomes about gaining an awareness of the assumptions, values and loyalties stemming from our own identities and life experiences which shape the way we understand and relate to others (Falender et al., 2014).

However, there is emerging evidence that contemplation in professional development is beginning to go beyond this to focus more on our inner nature. For example, studies involving managers have shown that approaches employing Buddhist wisdom techniques intended to foster awareness of our interconnected and ‘non-self’ nature can not only improve employee wellbeing and performance, but also facilitate an attitude shift whereby professional development becomes commensurate with transpersonal growth (Shonin et al., 2014; Van Gordon & Shonin, 2015). As a participant of one such study explained, ‘when you look at work as a place to grow as a person and spiritually, then every single work encounter becomes really important … you feel in charge of your life and you start to feel alive’ (Shonin & Van Gordon, 2015, pp.902-903).

This is consistent with Hunt’s argument that ‘reflective practice cannot be separated from … the asking of ultimate questions such as, “Who am I?”’ (2016, p.34). In other words, it is possible for reflective practice to extend beyond an immediate awareness of our professional practice positionality, to one that explores and challenges our thinking as well as the very source of that thinking.

In education, contemplative pedagogy is an approach that integrates contemplative practice into the learning process. It began to be adopted in the West about 20 years ago and has continued to grow since (Manning, 2020). The postmodern system that birthed it promotes transformative contemplative practices as a component of a more holistic learning framework, designed to challenge epistemological frameworks driven by entrenched economic and cultural agendas (Palmer & Zajonc, 2010). However, whilst such contemplative pedagogies honour the learner’s interiority and the associated drive to create a meaningful life, their scope is often narrowed with specific health or value outcomes in mind (Ergas, 2019). In other words, contemplation harnessed by modern forms of education – which focus on knowledge acquisition, cognitive development, and personal achievement – has often been used as a mechanism to address factors inhibiting optimal academic performance, such as stress and anxiety (Baranski, 2019).

Moving beyond intentions, some mainstream education institutions are starting to offer a contemplative pedagogy that appears to promote self-realisation and understanding of ultimate reality, whereby such encounters help inform the student’s world view (Clarke, 2013). Examples include the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University (US), where a key premise underlying the pedagogic approach is to enable students to cultivate contemplative states of mind so they can ‘discover important dimensions of their natures as human beings and their engagement with the world around them’.  

Reweaving the social fabric

It’s this engagement with the world around us where we feel contemplation is influential and under-appreciated… woven into the very social fabric of our lives.

Social fabric is the value system that acts as the invisible driving force behind the collective behaviour that binds societies together (Beck & Cowan, 2006). This value system is made up of the individual values held by its members relating to every dimension of our lives, from politics, philosophy, and family, to fashion, religion, and lifestyle (Tanner et al., 2020). This values-based social DNA aligns with complementary strands to create the countless threads woven into our social fabric. Contemplation reflects a key means by which we elucidate and develop these personal values so that our collective values dynamically evolve in response to an ever-changing world and complex structures of consciousness (Wilber, 1979).

Such evolution helps the societal fabric to remain fresh, vibrant, and durable, holding us together to contend with the challenges of the time. However, when we lose sight of the importance of contemplating our actions and place in the world, our value systems can ossify and become unresponsive to emergent challenges, thus weakening the integrity of the societal fabric (Kuhn & Lao, 1998). For example, it has been argued that a lack of contemplative awareness increases susceptibility to fear, cognitive control, and obedience, including that which typically underlies genocidal authoritarian regimes (Nhat Hanh, 2000). As Thomas Merton wrote, ‘Without contemplation … our action loses itself in the world and becomes dangerous’ (Merton, 1973, p.25).

Conceived of in this way, humanity is perpetually in a struggle between the evolution of its social fabric and the undermining of the same, with contemplation reflecting an important protective factor. As Clare Graves (1981, p.1) said, ‘Briefly, what I am proposing is that the psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiralling process, marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as man's existential problems change.’

This adaptive cycle and the role contemplation can play is evident in the ‘spiral of development’ of Western society (Beck & Cowan, 2006), from traditionalism, through modernism and postmodernism, to an emergent metamodernism. According to this evolutionary model of adaptive intelligence, the emergence of the traditional worldview represented an evolution beyond the chaos and anarchy generated by the egocentrism of earlier stages of human development, toward a stabilising, ordered, ethnocentric value system, in which identity and capacity for love and care, extended to incorporate the group (Gilligan, 1982). However, over time the contemplative practices that gave rise to this traditionalsocial fabric became rote, and genuine contemplative experience succumbed to a religiosity informed by dogma and absolutism, resulting in ossified social hierarchies that engendered oppression and inequality (Wilber, 2001).

In part, the response to this problem was a revival of contemplation, this time in the form of reflective thinking as a means of free and autonomous enquiry in the search for truth. Logic, evidence, and reflective practice started to replace dogma, divinely appointed authority, and faith as the dominant path to knowledge (Beck & Cowan, 2006). This more contemplative self underwent a differentiation from the group to think for itself and in so doing emancipated many marginalised groups, vastly increased human knowledge, and improved material wealth and health (Patten, 2018).

However, ‘differentiation easily slides into dissociation’ (Patten, 2018, p.118) and as contemplation became relegated to the status of unscientific subjectivity during the modern stage, our relationship with a deeper sense of self was undermined (Jankel, 2018). Contemplation of one’s place in the great chain of being was substituted with a disenchanted and hedonic form of thinking, by which individuals are motivated only to experience pleasure and avoid pain. As proposed by ontological addiction theory (Shonin et al., 2016; Van Gordon et al., 2018), it is becoming increasingly obvious that this addiction to self reflects a root cause of many of our psychosocial problems and is the arbiter of an increasingly devastated biosphere.

Eventually, a mode of thinking that is contemptuous of nature and the emotional and transpersonal dimensions must either evolve or it will destroy itself. And so, faced once again with existential problems, a contemplative revolution appears to have been triggered during the 1960s and 1970s, informed this time by the importation of Eastern wisdom traditions (Burke & Gonzalez, 2011). Here, contemplation spurred a cognitive advance capable of appreciating our interconnectedness with the great web of life, and revealing the self-defeating insanity of exploitation (Patten, 2018). This insight began to weave into a postmodern social fabric compassionate, communitarian, and ecocentric values intent on undermining structural injustices and repositioning nature in respect to its inherent rather than instrumental value (Patten, 2018).

However, in a benevolent attempt to take on multiple perspectives and give voice to all people, postmodernism ends up rejecting the possibility of any truth and meaning beyond our subjective experience, thereby infecting the social fabric with narcissism and nihilism (Baudrillard, 1994; Wilber, 2000). And having rejected the structured meaning making made possible through a discourse composed of evidence and reason, there is no means to negotiate with people with alternative perspectives around such topics as identity, institutionalism, and economics. Polarisation ensues, contributing to the culture wars currently undermining our social fabric (Hicks, 2004).

To address our global problems, we need to bring forth a new cultural paradigm; a reweaving of the social fabric in which we are united. This does not necessarily mean sharing the same perspective but rather apprehending the unities under the diversities and recognising the value that every stage of human development brings to a healthy social fabric. In healthy development, we ‘transcend and include’ the stage that came before it, so that individually and collectively we evolve to a higher stage of consciousness while incorporating the essential aspects of the prior stage. It means valuing the conscientiousness and community of traditional culture, the pragmatism and technical capability of modernity, and the compassion and interdependency of postmodernism. By combining this with a renewed awareness of our part in a ‘cosmic evolutionary process that gives our lives greater context and purpose’ (Patten, 2018, p.128), we can contribute to the emergence of the metamodern value system (Henriques, 2020).

A resurgence?

Each time we reach an inflection point in human development and undergo a significant reweaving of our social fabric, from traditionalism, through modernism and postmodernism, to an emergent metamodernism, there appears to be a re-emergence of some form of contemplative practice. Contemplation enables us to transcend modes of thinking that create our existential crises; as Einstein said, ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’. Following this transformational period, however, there often transpires a hollowing out of these contemplative practices, whether due to the dogmatic pursuit associated with religious traditionalism, the drive for personal gain of modernism, or the socio-political agenda of postmodernism.

These forms of instrumentalisation are arguably still visible in the contemplative practices undertaken throughout society today, from research and health to the workplace and beyond. And in many respects these applications of contemplation are to be welcomed, as they continue to offer relief from many psychopathologies, help to undermine injustice, revive communitarian values, and assist in addressing our ecological crises.

However, more recently, there appears to be early signs of a resurgence of an authentic contemplative practice with no explicit agenda, other than to reconnect us with our innermost nature and ultimate reality. This is visible in the emerging research into wisdom-based contemplative approaches, the development of second-generation mindfulness-based interventions, the evolution of organisations with evolutionary and whole-self ideals, professional development that asks the ultimate questions, and a more profound form of contemplative pedagogy. If the beginning of such a resurgence is indeed what we are witnessing, then – without underestimating the magnitude of the leap in human development needed to reweave a social fabric infused with wisdom, humility, and awe – there remains hope that we may cooperate compassionately and symbiotically to address our most intractable problems.

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